It's a simple toy conceived when a stonemason watched a group of children playing with sticks, pencils and empty thread spools. But since their introduction 75 years ago Sunday, Tinkertoys have found their way into millions of toyboxes, chemistry labs and even industrial drawing boards.
"It's a classic," said Debbie Wager, who oversees the annual toy quality report from the liberal political action group Americans for Democratic Action. "There are not too many toys that have been around for three or four years - let alone 75."Tinkertoys were introduced at the 1913 American Toy Fair by inventor Charles Pajeau of Evanston, Ill., but it was a year before they caught on.
In a 1914 publicity stunt so successful it halted traffic while motorists gawked, Pajeau hired midgets to dress up like Santa's elves and play with Tinkertoys in a window of New York City's Grand Central Station, according to "A Toy is Born," by Marvin Kaye.
Since then, more than 100 million Tinkertoy sets have found their way to the young and young-at-heart.
Chemistry professors use them to make molecular models, Indiana Bell Telephone uses them to test management candidates and Lockheed Corp. used them for design models.
Still, "it's the children who continue to make the toy popular," said Wayne Charness, spokesman for Tinkertoy manufacturer Hasbro Inc., of Pawtucket.
"It's a great toy because kids can use their imagination with it and build anything they want," said Wager, of the Washington-based lobby group. "They can take it apart and build something different with it 10 minutes later."
A youngster in 1913, 87-year-old Myrtle Green of North Providence remembers playing with Tinkertoys when they were first introduced.
"We used to make cars and houses and everything," she said.
After watching her children and grandchildren grow up playing with them, she says: "It keeps the kids busy and they enjoy it. It keeps them quiet."
While Green and others may feel sentimental seeing their offspring play with the familiar toy, nostalgia doesn't carry much weight with today's youngsters.
"Little kids are pretty savvy," Charness said. "If they have done everything a toy has to offer the first few times they play with it, it will stay in the toy box. But if you provide a toy that's going to challenge them every time they use it, that's the toy you're going to have to pick up after them every time they play."
And what do children make with the multicolored wooden sticks and spools?
"It could be nothing, it could be a helicopter, it could be the Eiffel Tower," said Charness. Whatever it is, it "gives them a sense of accomplishment," he said.
Tinkertoys haven't changed much over the years. First introduced in metal canisters, they were sold in boxes for a time until last year, when Hasbro returned to the original packaging, he said.
In 1983, plastic pieces were added to allow for more construction possibilities, said Charness.
First marketed by The Toy Tinkers of Evanston, the toy changed companies several times until 1986, when Hasbro acquired Tinkertoys as part of a purchase of the New York-based CBS Toys and its Playskool subsidiary.
Imitators have developed over the years, but Tinkertoys continue to hold their share of the market, selling about 1 million sets a year.
Although new to the Tinkertoy tradition, the world's largest toy maker celebrated Tinkertoys' 75th birthday last week with a 4-foot-high birthday cake - made of Tinkertoys.